The incredible science behind Eliud Kipchoge’s Ineos 1:59 marathon attempt | WIRED UK

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Eliud Kipchoge is the greatest male marathoner ever. The 34-year-old Kenyan runner has topped the podium in 11 of his 12 races over 26.2 miles, is the Olympic champion, and holds the world record for the distance: 2:01:39. He also ran the marathon distance in 2:00:25 at Nike’s Breaking2 event in Monza, Italy – missing the two hour barrier by a single second per mile.

Kipchoge is once again after the elusive marathon finish time that starts with “one hour” and is on the verge of a second attempt. On October 12 he’ll be taking to streets of Vienna in another specially organised event that aims to break one of distance running’s final big hurdles.

Before Kipchoge’s 2:00:25 in 2017, there were serious questions around whether a human could run under two hours for a marathon distance. Studies suggested it may take until 2032 to beat the record and a male ceiling on performance could be 1:58:05. The 2017 result hinted that a run under two hours could happen sooner than had been forecast.

If he does so, like in the Nike-sponsored event, the time won’t count as a world record as it isn’t part of an officially sanctioned race and is using pacemakers that rotate in and out of the run. This time around Kipchoge’s effort has been organised by chemical company Ineos, which has links to fracking and is owned by the UK’s richest man, Jim Ratcliffe. But environmental politics aside, there’s some serious science behind Kipchoge’s attempt and he’ll need everything to work seamlessly if he’s going to get anywhere near the sub-two goal.

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A phenomenal pace

Before we get into what can help Kipchoge cross the line in 1:59:59, it’s worth pausing and considering how ridiculously quick this is. To break it down, it’s a 2:50 min/km pace for 42 kilometres or 4:34.5 per mile for each of the 26 miles. Those figures might not mean much when they’re viewed on their own but when compared to regular humans, they’re ridiculous.

According to Runners World, the average 5km finish time in the UK (an equivalent distance to a Parkrun) is 33 minutes and 54 seconds. For men it is 29:08 and women 38:12. To complete a marathon in less than two hours Kipchoge needs to run 5km in 14:13, eight times in a row.

Equally, the 10,000m (10km) male world record sits at shade over 26:17 and Kipchoge needs to repeatedly run 28:26. A 1:59:59 marathon is the equivalent of running 100m sprints in just over 17 seconds – 422 times in a row.

The right food

Carbohydrates are key to sustained performance in endurance sports – and marathon running is no different. In preparing for the Ineos challenge, the organisers created a window (October 12 to October 20) when the run could happen. This uncertainty meant Kipchoge’s food preparations couldn’t begin early. “Because they’ve not had a specific day when they’re going to run, they’ve had to delay the nutritional strategies they’re going to implement before they race,” says Stephen Mears, a lecturer in sports and exercise nutrition at Loughborough University.

Before the run on October 12, Kipchoge will have been increasing the amount of carbohydrates in his diet, Mears says. Muscles rely on carbs, stored in the body as glycogen, to produce force and, thus, power running. If the body runs out of carbohydrates it will start burning fat to fuel an athlete – a process that’s not as efficient and fat is often in short supply in the bodies of elite athletes.

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It’s not just before the run that Kipchoge will be taking on extra carbs. He’ll also be having them while he’s on the move. “Consuming carbohydrates during exercise will maintain performance or, at least, prevent a drop off,” Mears says. He predicts the Kenyan runner will be taking on 60 to 100 grams of carbohydrates per hour. This can be achieved in a couple of different ways without requiring him to slow down too much.

First, he can take energy gels, which can contain carbohydrates as well other supplements to counteract the impact of fatigue. But it’s likely the majority of the carbs Kipchoge will consume will be through drinks. He uses a powdered drink, called Maurten, that contains 80g of carbs per 500ml serving.

During the run Kipchoge’s team will hand him drinks from bikes riding alongside him – this is a key reason why the attempt won’t count as a world record. His nutritionalist will collect each bottle after he has finished with it and measure how much fluid the athlete has consumed. It’s not known how many drinks Kipchoge will take but Mears says during the Nike sub-two hour marathon attempt he experimented with small drinks (around 50ml) every few kilometres to keep a constant supply of fuel going into his body. Smaller servings take longer to get to the muscles, Mears says, but when compared to large drinks they are less likely to cause gastrointestinal issues.

Psychological boost

Until 2017, the fastest marathon run was languishing in the high 2:02s. Since then, Kipchoge has brought down the official world record to 2:01:39 (set during the Berlin marathon in 2018). This was the biggest jump forward in a the male marathon record in 60 years. And the athlete clearly believes that with the right conditions he can dip under two hours.

“I always say that no human is limited, and I know that it is possible,” Kipchoge said when the effort was announced in May. Unlike in Monza, Kipchoge will have a crowd supporting him along the entire course. Nike’s effort was closed to the public, with only a few hundred people in attendance. This time around Ineos has made it free and in a public space, to help attract crowds.

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Pacers to block the wind

Attempting to improve top level athletic performance is all about marginal gains. If it’s possible to make a small tweak that increases efficiency or a result by half a per cent then it’s worth putting the time in to get it right. That’s where aerodynamics come into running a sub-two hour marathon.

Elite cyclists have long known that shielding an athlete from the wind can make huge differences to wind resistance they face. Research has shown that riders in the middle of a peloton – a group of cyclists riding close together to reduce aerodynamic drag – can decrease the impact of wind resistance by 50 to 70 per cent.

The influence of wind resistance is reduced in running – due to lower speeds – but it can still make a difference. During Kipchoge’s assault on the two hour barrier he will have the support of 35 pacemakers (with another six in reserve). These are some of the world’s top athletes, who are able to consistently run the 4:34.5 per mile pace that’s required.

A group of seven pacemakers will be in front of Kipchoge in a V formation. Kipchoge will be placed at the bottom of the formation and two of the pacemakers will run behind him. It’s planned for the pacemakers to work in teams and rotate in and out of the race twice during each of the 9.6km laps of the course.

In front of the pacemakers will be a pace car. This shows projected finish times and carries a laser system that projects where the pacemakers should be running and crucially acts as a large barrier that can reduce drag. Ineos says the electric car has been altered so its cruise control is more accurate than that of regular models.

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Correct weather conditions

Vienna was picked for the marathon attempt not just because the city is largely flat – the event is being run through a large park called Prater. It also has weather conditions in October that are conducive to running fast. The route through Prater is a 4.3km straight, which loops around roundabouts at each end, and will be repeated 4.4 times to complete the distance.

At the time of writing the weather for Saturday shows temperatures of between eight and 12 degrees Celsius for 5am to 12pm. (The run will begin at some-point between 5am and 9am). There will be a ten per cent chance of rain and humidity is predicted to be around 68 per cent.

“A temperature of 10 Celsius is regarded as a fair benchmark for perfect marathon running conditions, combined with low humidity,” Ineos explains in a blog post. “The issue of humidity – the amount of water in the air – was one of the areas identified for improvement after the 2017 Monza attempt when an early morning rain shower gave rise to unexpected levels of humidity.” Rain can also slow runners down by marginally increasing the weight of their clothing and reducing road traction.

There are also other environmental factors about Vienna that increase the chances of Kipchoge running fast times. It’s at a low altitude (165m above sea level) that increases oxygen consumption when compared with high altitudes and it is only one hour behind the time in Kenya, meaning the runner won’t have to significantly adjust to a different timezone.

Efficiency enhancing shoes

For Kipchoge’s 2017 Breaking2 event, Nike created a new pair of shoes. The Vaporfly 4% trainers claimed to make runners four per cent more efficient in their movement using a combination of a supersoft foam and a carbon plate. It’s since released an update version that it says has seen some runners getting more than five per cent efficiency gains.

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Analysis from the New York Times and an independent academic study has suggested the shoe company’s efficiency claims are true. (The five fastest men’s marathon times ever, all set since 2018, have been run by athletes in versions of the shoe).

But Kipchoge may have something new on his feet. Prototype images that have appeared on Instagram show Kipchoge training in Kenya in a new version of the trainer that has added airbags and more carbon fibre plates. A Nike patent has suggested just as much. Will it be enough to shave 26 seconds of Kipchoge’s previous marathon best?

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